AUTHORED BY COLE STERR
After more than 40 years in the commercial real estate industry, champion John Saunders has truly left a lasting legacy throughout his career. To commemorate his retirement, let’s look at his real estate journey and some of the key legacies he will leave behind.
Creating Deep Roots in Commercial Real Estate
Saunders attended Tufts University in Boston, where he received his bachelor’s degree in English. Besides attending college, he enjoyed “his favorite job ever.” He scooped ice cream at Joey’s Ice Cream Shop. “It was a blast. Everybody is always happy and in a good mood when they are getting ice cream,” explains Saunders.
As a Minnesota native, Saunders then returned to Minnesota to attend the university’s law school. Graduating in 1981, he began his law career at the Rider Bennett firm in Minneapolis, where he practiced bankruptcy, corporate, and commercial real estate law. From there, he performed in-house work for a developer client and then moved to Northco, primarily doing acquisitions on the business side, not as a lawyer.
Having developed an interest in the commercial real estate business while practicing law, Saunders imagined the possibilities of making the transition to the business side of real estate, which he achieved while at Northco in the acquisition and disposition of office and industrial property investments.
This mid-life career change from law to business real estate was one of the most difficult undertakings for Saunders. “Trying to get in the business side of the industry when all I had ever done was law, while in my late 30s, was really difficult,” he recalls. However, upon reflecting on his career, Saunders explains that successfully making that transition is what he’s most proud of. “It was totally worth it,” he says.
After successfully morphing to the business side of the commercial real estate industry, Saunders found himself here at UP where he has spent 16 years performing acquisition, disposition, and asset management work.
Saunders remembers how his time at United Properties has strengthened the communities around him, especially the North Loop neighborhood. A project that he is very proud of is the renovation, tax credit financing, and successful transformation of the Ford Center. “The Ford Center was the first big historic renovation in the North Loop, which really helped set off major redevelopment in that neighborhood,” explains Saunders.
Two other highlights of his impressive commercial real estate career include the acquisition via an online auction of four struggling buildings that UP leased up and sold in 18 months and the recent sale of industrial buildings to two groups out of Hawaii. He also mentions as a highlight the sale of RSM Plaza after difficult work extending the ground leases underlying that property.
Leaving Lasting Legacies
Looking back on his time in the industry, Saunders wants to be remembered as someone who maintained high values and contributed to the success of United Properties. “In the long-run, honesty and maintaining integrity are the most important things,” says Saunders.
As for his hopes for United Properties, he foresees the company continuing to thrive from developing and investing in unique and noteworthy assets. When asked if he had any advice for incoming real estate professionals, he said: “Get really good at numbers, be very thorough in analysis and diligence, and enjoy the business because it can be really fun.” When asked what the best advice he had ever received was, he said that his father once told him: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re an idiot than to open it and remove all doubt.”
As for retirement, Saunders is most excited for one simple thing: time. Embarking on this new chapter of his life will allow him to drive his 1967 Volkswagen van, relearn Portuguese and travel to Brazil, lower his handicap, and finish building his cabin in Webster, Wisconsin. He also plans to eventually do some non-profit work.
Finally, Saunders is “totally blessed” to have worked with some “top-notch and wonderful people” in the industry. He is also blessed by having a wonderful wife, Mary, and son, Jackson, who will be following in his father’s footsteps, attending Tuft’s University in the fall.